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SAFETY PROBE OF '86-89 EXCEL INTENSIFIED

The government said it has intensified its safety probe into 1986-89 Hyundai Excel cars for possible engine compartment fires, and opened a preliminary evaluation into possible brake malfunctions that could affect 1 million 1988-91 light trucks made by Ford Motor Co.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in its Monthly Defect Investigation Report for May, also opened a preliminary evaluation into several lines of mid-size cars made by General Motors Corp. after receiving one owner complaint about a steering wheel falling off a nearly new 1991-model Pontiac Grand Prix.Also being looked at are all 1988-91 Chevrolet Lumina, Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme and Buick Regal cars made by GM, NHTSA said.

Separately, GM announced the recall of about 42,000 1991-model Chevrolet Corsica and Beretta cars because of the same problem. NHTSA upgraded a similar probe into those cars April 10 after receiving one owner complaint.

GM spokesman David Sloan said the automaker was aware of seven reports of steering wheel separation, but no accidents or injuries were involved. He said the problem was discovered after a design change to steering wheel-mounted air bags on those cars. GM will inspect the affected Corsicas and Berettas and tighten the retaining nut if required.

Sloan also said NHTSA's investigation into steering wheel separation on other GM cars is unrelated to the Corsica/Beretta problem, and that the automaker is cooperating with the safety agency.

Regarding the Hyundai investigation, NHTSA spokesman Tim Hurd said the agency has 44 owner complaints on record that may be due to a defective emissions control valve that causes the catalytic converter to overheat.

About 838,000 Excels may be affected by the investigation, which was upgraded from a preliminary evaluation to an engineering analysis. That could lead to a safety recall if warranted, Hurd said.

NHTSA also said it is aware of 20 owner complaints involving 14 accidents and seven injuries regarding 1988-91 Ford trucks equipped with rear anti-lock brakes made by Kelsey-Hayes. Hurd said owners may experience a sudden loss of braking, with some drivers reporting the brake pedal going to the floorboard.

A preliminary evaluation is the first phase of a NHTSA safety inquiry.

Other preliminary evaluations opened by NHTSA in May include:

-1987-88 Ford Mustangs, for headlights that may flicker or not work when fog lights are on. Thirteen owner complaints; about 339,000 cars potentially affected.

-1991 Dodge Spirit, Plymouth Acclaim sedans made by Chrysler Corp. equipped with 2.5 liter engines, for engine surge. Six complaints involving one accident; about 83,000 cars involved.

-1987 Omni, Horizon, Charger, Turismo, made by Chrysler. Fuel pump reservoir leaks gasoline onto exhaust system. Seventeen complaints and four fires; 289,000 cars potentially involved.

NHTSA also dropped several safety investigations during May because either no defect trend or unreasonable risk was determined. Those included:

-1990 Volkswagen Jettas, for unstable high engine idle.

-1986-88 Ford Taurus/Mercury Sables, for door handle breakage.

-1990 Chevrolet Astro vans, for sliding door hinge failure.

-1986-89 Isuzu Trooper IIs, for wheel lug stud fracture.